Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Yars' Revenge (1982) - Atari 2600 and Atari: Game Over (2014)

I'm going to be honest with you here. I was born in the early-1980s. Although my parents did own an Intellivision I had no contact with that system until the '90s and well after I'd received my first video game console, the Nintendo Entertainment System. As far as the Atari 2600, I can't even recall when I saw one for the first time, but as a result of never playing one when I was a kid I just never got into the system at all.

The Atari 2600 in all its wood-grained glory
I always understood the love for that Atari 2600, but it was just before my time. And because of the video game crash in '83 they were quickly off the market and almost a distant memory by the I got my NES in '89. I had one cousin who had an Atari 2600, but it was rarely played when I visited in lieu of playing whatever NES games he had available instead.

All this to say that - although I understand why people love the Atari 2600 - I have zero nostalgia for it, and frankly, never really cared for it. Compared to what I got to play on the NES, 2600 games just seemed a little too primitive. In my mind they were mostly poorly ported arcade titles and I was never really into those particular games to begin with. I appreciated playing shooter games like Galaxian in the arcade itself, but when I saw the home port on the 2600 it never really wowed me.

A few years ago my wife got me an Atari Flashback 6 for Christmas and I suddenly had a bevy of 2600 games at my fingertips to try. Again, I found myself not so interested in the shooter games, but I discovered a new appreciation for titles like Adventure and the 2600 port of Frogger. Still, I didn't spend too much time with it, but it is permanently hooked up to what I affectionately call my "retro corner" in my home office, which consists of a flat-screen CRT, a VCR, a DVD player/recorder, and my Atari Flashback. Whenever I want to hook up another older console I hook it up to this TV, but they don't fit in the stand. The Flashback, however, fits in there nicely, so it's basically always hooked up.

The other night I was going through Netflix looking for something to watch and I realized that although I'd added it to "My List" I had never gotten around to watching Zak Penn's Atari: Game Over. The documentary takes a look at the meteoric rise of Atari in the late-70s/early-80s, the programmers producing their money-making cartridges, and the downfall of the company, seemingly signaled by the infamous E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial 2600 game release at Christmas of '82.

The Atari: Game Over poster displaying the co-ordinates of the infamous dumping site
It runs at around an hour and is a really great watch. I am a self-professed video game aficionado and like to believe I know a lot about the industry, but I learned a great deal about Atari and the effect the 2600 had on the home computing enterprise by watching this film.

The film delves into the long-lived rumour that the release of E.T. for the Atari was so bad and so poorly received that the company drove all the extra copies of the game, of which they had printed millions, and buried them in the desert in Alamogordo, NM. This story had become video game legend and had cemented the idea the E.T. is the worst video game ever made and almost single-handedly destroyed Atari.

An ad for E.T. on the 2600
Atari: Game Over focuses on three main individuals: Joe Lewandowski, the man who researched and believed he found the site of the Atari game burial, Howard Scott Warshaw, the programmer who created the E.T. cartridge, and Ernie Cline, writer and video game enthusiast. There are plenty of interviews from the people in charge of Atari at the time of the crash, as well as many other filmmakers and video game developers.

With such a short run-time, the film has a bit of a narrow scope. It's a fun watch and I liked that it focused on Howard Scott Warshaw and the effect E.T. and Atari had on his life, which was a really cool perspective and story I'd never heard before. If you're looking to understand the entirety of Atari's downfall and the video game crash, however, this film isn't going to get you there. It will whet your appetite for more information, and I think is ultimately worth the watch, but you'll need to go elsewhere for the full story.

How does this all get back to Yars' Revenge, which you see in the title of this post? Well, like I said, I was captivated by Howard Scott Warshaw's story in the film. He was brought in as one of Atari's "rockstar programmers" at the height of the 2600's popularity and - before he became synonymous with E.T. - programmed the most profitable original game for the Atari 2600 - Yars' Revenge.

Yars' Revenge box-art
Yars' Revenge started out as another Atari 2600 arcade port - the kind I mentioned I had little interest in - of Star Castle. Warshaw quickly told his superiors that he couldn't properly port that game to the home console hardware, but had come up with his own game that used a similar mechanic. He was greenlighted to then program his game, which went on to sell one million copies.

Warshaw really wanted to blend storytelling with video games, something that wasn't really being done at the time, so he came up with a whole backstory to Yars' Revenge, which was adapted into a comic and packaged with the game. It tells the story of the Yars - a race of super-advanced houseflies - that had originated on Earth, but had been mutated in space, developed their own society and culture, and inhabited several planets in another solar system. An unknown race called the Quotile attacked and destroyed one of the Yars' planets, Razak IV, and now it is up to the warriors of Yars to defend their people against the Quotile using their newly developed Zorlon Cannon. It's a fun little comic and you can check it out here.

Warshaw coding E.T. The Extraterrestrial in his home in 1982
The game is pretty simplistic. The player pilots the Yar, a flying bug-like creature, against the Quotile. The enemy is encased in a shield, which the Yar needs to either blast or munch to destroy. The Quotile has two attacks - a missile that slowly chases the Yar at all times on screen, and the "Swirl", in which the Quotile itself spins and shoots across the screen at the Yar. There is a neutral zone in the middle of the screen that the Yar can enter and becomes impervious to the missile, but also loses the ability to shoot. The neutral zone does not, however, protect from the Swirl, which can destroy the Yar at all times.

The Yar has to destroy the barrier around the Quotile and attempt to fire the Zorlon Cannon. The only way to fire it, however, is to either touch the Quotile or nibble at the shield. When the cannon becomes available you'll see it appear on the opposite side of the screen. Once fired, the cannon blast will fire directly at the Yar, so you have to pilot away from the blast after it is fired and try to bypass the barrier and hit the Quotile to progress to the next stage.

There are two screens in the game (that I saw), one with a domed barrier, and another with a strange rectangular barrier, which constantly shifts. The further you get in the game, the barrier will change colour and the enemies will become more and more difficult. For instance, in the earlier stages the Swirl is pretty easy to see coming and dodge, but later there is little warning that the Quotile is going to unleash this blast, so you have to be on your toes to dodge it.

Yar's Revenge
Directly after I finished Atari: Game Over, I found myself wanting to play... E.T.: The Extraerrestrial. I have a weird relationship with that movie (maybe some day I'll write about it) and all the talk about the video game made me want to try it out. Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, and doesn't grace the Atari Flashback 6. However, it did have Yars' Revenge, so I decided to boot it up. I found myself playing it for hours! I have never played an Atari for that long in my life and I really enjoyed it.

With only two stages it seems like the game would be very limited, but the difficulty ramps up quite well and I found myself really challenged by the game. And what's funny is all that backstory that Warshaw wanted attached to the game really helped! My imagination combined with the comic book helped me really feel like I was a flying Yar warrior defending my race against the evil Quotile and made the game that much more enjoyable.

I can't remember my high score, but it wasn't great. I died a lot! But the main thing was that I had fun and I still want to play more! Finally, I "got" what people enjoyed about the Atari 2600. Yars' Revenge is a really fun game and not like any other flying shooter I've ever played before.

So my final verdict is that you should check out Atari: Game Over and pair it with Yars' Revenge. The film and the game both gave me a new appreciation for the Atari 2600 and they might do the same for you, too!

Hope you enjoyed,